James “Whitey” Bulger was a ruthless, murderous gang leader. But in Whitey: The United States of America vs. James J. Bulger, filmmaker Joe Berlinger wants us to know that Bulger was a ruthless, murderous gang leader with a code. Which means making it clear that he was never an F.B.I. informant, as the feds claim he was, and that he never killed innocent women, as his former associate, Steve Flemmi, accuses him of doing. If the documentary doesn’t quite defend this version of the facts, it does give it a solid airing, all while questioning the extent of Bulger’s culpability more than exploring the nature of his crimes.
Whitey begins in 2011 when Bulger was finally captured after 16 years on the run, then quickly fast-forwards to last year, when Bulger went on trial in Boston, the city in which he ran his crime empire. It’s an abnormal trial from the start: Bulger’s lawyers have a defense against some of the accusations, arguing that the three jailed members of Bulger’s gang testifying for the prosecution in exchange for commuted sentences are unworthy of the jury’s trust. But for the most part, Berlinger portrays the defense team’s strategy as focused on one goal that has little to do with Bulger’s guilt or innocence: proving that he wasn’t in fact an F.B.I. informant and drawing attention to the government corruption that kept him out of jail for so long.
In covering the trial, Whitey also opts to focus on this potential corruption, spending much more time with the defense lawyers than the prosecution, who appear only when required to comment on accusations that F.B.I. detectives forged an informant file for Bulger while getting paid to feed him tips on upcoming indictments and wiretaps. The fact that both defendant and prosecutor appear to be implicated in the same crimes in this case makes for a particularly compelling set of interviews between Berlinger and the relatives of Bulger’s victims. Over time, each one affirms that their hatred of Bulger is only exceeded by their hatred of the F.B.I., who they argue is more to blame for their suffering than Bulger. Their comments ultimately provide a vivid picture of the complex, sometimes contradictory relationship that a community beset by violence can have with the authority figures who fail to maintain order in their neighborhoods. At one point, one of the victims’ relatives, Steve Davis, states his vehement hatred of “rats” and argues that Massachusetts has “turned into an infested rat hole.” But, of course, it’s only because of the handful of criminals that did flip that Davis is able to watch Bulger stand trial.
Berlinger’s stance toward Bulger and the F.B.I., though, is at times harder to swallow. While the doc never pardons Bulger’s acts, its emphasis on the F.B.I.’s corruption leads it uncomfortably close to a positive portrayal of the former gang leader. Of course, if it’s true that Bulger wasn’t an informant and that many F.B.I. employees were in his pocketbook (a claim that Berlinger never definitively proves), then the U.S. government would be guilty of hypocrisy, while Bulger wouldn’t have that particular failing weighing on his conscience. Yet, in Whitey, that fact too often leads to an unnecessary qualification, represented by Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen when he declares: “Whitey Bulger is a vicious, venal murderer, but he was enabled by the F.B.I..” The conjunction there should be “and” rather than “but.” That Bulger and the F.B.I. both acted reprehensibly aren’t two difficult ideas to hold together. The victims’ relatives manage easily to do so, but as a film, Whitey seems too enamored with the seductive notion of an honorable criminal, too ready to take Bulger’s justifications as actual indications of his relative innocence.